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Morality, Gorgias, and Open Society

The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl Popper, p 105
Socrates' doctrine, in the Gorgias, that it is worse to do injustice than to suffer it [...] Socrates' teaching that it is better to suffer such acts than do them
'such acts' refers to acts of injustice, and these examples are given
boxing a man's ears, injuring, or killing him
Popper looks upon this theory with favor, and says it is in the spirit of Pericles, and opposed to the spirit of Plato's Republic.

While I happen to agree with Socrates' conclusion, his arguments for it are bad. I don't think Popper should cite conclusions that were badly argued without providing some argument of his own.

Here is a summary (by me) of what Socrates says:
Doing injustice is bad for your soul. Suffering through no fault of your own is not bad for your soul. Therefore doing injustice is worse than suffering it.

Socrates also says that it's better to be punished for doing injustice than to get away with it, because the punishment is just, and therefore improves your soul.
This is nonsense. Socrates never explains how to tell what is good or bad for a soul, other than in terms of what we already think is good or bad. And also, if an action or event is soul-harming, why should it not harm everyone involved equally? Socrates assumes his conclusion to be true when he assumes the doer of injustice suffers more soul harm. That is the 'begging the question' fallacy.

Here is how I would consider this issue. I approach moral questions as an individualist who is interested in *the* moral question: 'how should I live?' We must think about what choices, and general policies for choosing, are best for a person. This way of approaching moral questions is very powerful and can easily settle many confused old debates.

As a quick note, I interpret the question about "better" or "worse" to mean "morally better" and "morally worse". Otherwise it would go more like this: would I rather have a significant force exerted on my ears, or a mild one on my knuckles? (Would I rather box ears, or be boxed.) Put this way, of course the mild force on the knuckles damages my body less and is thus preferable, but this isn't what Socrates meant, nor is it an interesting question.

In the context of a question about morality, it's pretty simple. To intentionally do injustice means to have a way of making choices that is hateful, and it means to adopt some value system compatible with being a thug. The person who's way of making decisions leads him to do injustice is the person who has the wrong way of choosing, by definition of 'injustice'. So he is immoral.

To suffer injustice at the hands of others simply means to fail take enough precautions and defensive measures. This is a mistake that people can make while having a generally good life strategy, and mostly making good choices. (And unfortunately, injustice can even happen to people who make only exceptional choices and no relevant mistakes. But what of it? That is bad luck, and no more. All that is in our power is make good decisions in our life. Bad luck can happen to anyone; the interesting thing is what's in our control: our choices. Do those work to make our life better or worse?)

If we think of morality as being about having a good way of approaching life, then it's obvious that even a good person can be assaulted by thugs in an alley, and that does not make him less moral, but no good person can be one of those thugs.

The question basically amounts to, "If X is a bad way of life, would you rather do X, or rather someone else does?" In other words, "Would you rather be immoral, or not?" It's sad that this has ever confused anyone.

Elliot Temple on January 31, 2009

Comments (1)

Poppers maxime is "to reduce suffering where it occurs" and thats why he accepts Socrates teaching to a certain point.
What Socrates realized I guess is, that the evil doer often is fearful of punishment, but knows that this punishment would be just, and therefore as Socrates states good for your soul.
A murder once said. I am so pitiful for my self for going into jail. Asked if the trial was fair and his sentence just, he replied "absolutely"

Socrates teaching that suffering exalts you is wrong I would agree. But it was a strong morally statement which let you think about it. It shook your very concept of morality and that is what Socrates tried to do. To shake your concept.

Tobias Mueller-Kortkamp
(as allways apologizing for bad english)

Anonymous at 3:19 PM on January 31, 2009 | #1744

What do you think?

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